Washington Public resolve for sustaining the war in Iraq has reached a tipping point, in the view of both supporters and critics, and may have already turned.
The administration's fumbling response to the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal was the most visible evidence of disarray, with senior officials by turns ignoring and dismissing reports of systemic abuse and then scrambling to contain a worldwide propaganda debacle.
But that was only one among several dramatic reversals last week. Among the others:
- The pullback of Marines from Fallujah, the center of Sunni opposition to the U.S.-led occupation, after weeks of public pledges by President Bush and military leaders that the insurgents would be taken out.
- The administration's request to Congress for $25 billion more for Iraq and Afghanistan, and the announcement that it now anticipates maintaining 135,000 troops in Iraq through the end of 2005. Both numbers were far greater than administration projections just weeks before.
- Public opinion surveys showing that Bush's job approval ratings have fallen below 50 percent, to the lowest levels of his presidency. Some 60 percent of those surveyed said events in Iraq were "spinning out of control."
- An increase in support, to as much as 7 percent in recent surveys, for Ralph Nader, the independent presidential candidate many Democrats blame for Al Gore's defeat in 2000 and this year the champion for an Iraqi policy of get-out-fast.
One bright spot on Iraq for the administration is that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, at least for the moment, is standing firm on his support for the U.S.-led occupation.
Kerry ripped Bush's handling of the prisoner-abuse issue and, more generally, his failure to engage broader international support. But he has carefully coupled that criticism with an insistence that the United States must remain in Iraq.
"We do not have the choice just to pick up and leave," Kerry said last month in the speech he delivered at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., "and leave behind a failed state and a new haven for terrorists."
But Democrats who opposed the war from the start, along with Nader, could make it hard for Kerry to sustain his position.
"The two parties have opened up a major space for a responsible peace candidate," said Nader in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "The Iraqi war is just one symptom of ... a feeling of a loss of control by the American people over almost everything that matters to them -- elections, government, corporations, the marketplace, their children and the environment."
Democrats who believe in seeing the Iraq project through to a successful end are worried.
"We really are at a tipping point in Iraq," said Sandy Berger, who served as national security adviser under former President Bill Clinton and now supports Kerry.
"The question is whether popular support for American engagement in Iraq is eroding irreversibly. In some parts of the country it is; in others, not yet."
On Thursday, NBC and the Wall Street Journal released its latest poll. It showed that while Bush still maintained a narrow lead over Kerry, there were significant fault lines emerging on Iraq, the economy and the country's overall direction.
Among Republicans surveyed, four of 10 said they might abandon Bush depending on events in Iraq or the economy between now and November. By a margin of 50 percent to 33 percent, all of those surveyed said they believed the country was headed in a wrong direction.
The findings tracked those earlier in the week in a survey for CBS and The New York Times, in which 46 percent of those surveyed said American troops should be withdrawn and 48 percent said the war had been a mistake.